Sam Brody's Son Responds to the Film Alice Neel
First, let me make it clear that Andrew Neel has made a good film. Alice Neel is well-paced and eye-catching. He's a talented filmmaker. Dare I suggest that it's in his genes?
Second, in the more than two decades that I lived with and was raised by Sam Brody (a leading character in the drama of Alice Neel's life), he never laid an abusive hand on me. Not once.
It’s worth noting that Alice Neel’s two sons, who continue to tell the world that Sam Brody was abusive, have publicly repudiated their mother’s bohemian lifestyle. Richard Neel is an avowed political conservative and according to Alice herself, Hartley Neel (Sam’s son) was at one time a registered Republican. I don't know where his political loyalties currently lie.
Making Sam Brody the villain is an easy way to rationalize certain life choices while still allowing Richard and Hartley to bask in the afterglow of their mother’s success.
When Hartley needed my father to support his abortive attempt to become a filmmaker, he had a very different attitude. During his medical internship in San Francisco, he was a regular visitor at our home in Los Angeles with no hint of the Dickensian nightmare that Sam Brody must have represented (if the film's version of his childhood is to be credited). What troubling memories he must have had to suppress as he sat across from his father at the Mexican restaurant we frequented?
As for Richard; my father, mother and I, spent many days and weeks with his family over the course of years. I recall fondly the evenings spent with Richard, his then wife Nancy, their children and Alice in the dining room of the Neel country home in New Jersey. Alice's portrait of me in the MOMA collection was painted there. Richard's daughter was my friend and playmate.
I only describe my personal involvement with the characters in this melodrama to demonstrate direct experience. I can only testify to what I saw and heard, but throughout that time, extending from my earliest childhood to mid-twenties, I had no sense from anyone in Alice Neel's family that Sam Brody was the cartoonish monster he became in later versions of their history.
Why was the man who had dished out such abuse made so welcome?
Then, as Alice’s fame grew and the romance of her life struggle became entrenched in the imagination of art historians and fans, Sam Brody became a heavy-lidded Russian madman who abused children. There was even at one time the implication that Richard’s near blindness was the result of Sam’s passion for healthy eating. (He was an early member of the health food movement.) Too many organic carrots? An overdose of lettuce?
These are all just lurid additions to the mythology of a dead artist’s life. Tales that have become more important than the art itself.
Sam Brody was an extraordinary man who had, in life, an intense often tempestuous personality, but to me he was a mentor and teacher. Hardly a day goes by without my being reminded in the context of my daily life of something that he taught me.
I understand that I will be accused of having a largely emotional response to the film, Alice Neel. I can't help that. I knew and cared about Alice and her family and it's painful, but necessary, for me to speak up in service of the facts as I know them.
What I will always believe to be the heart of the matter is that Sam Brody was, for all his very human flaws, a living breathing example of the value of commitment and passion. He was a photographer, writer and filmmaker who helped invent the modern political documentary and that's how he should be remembered.